White runner beans look and taste like lima beans, but are plumper and grow better in cooler weather. Top photo by Yaicha Cowell. Lower photo by Arika Bready.
By Will Bonsall
A few decades ago while I was helping an elderly farmer friend, Orlando Small, with his haying, he chanced to comment on his fine lima bean crop. I replied that I didn’t realize limas could be reliably grown in that neighborhood, whereupon he walked me right to his garden to prove his point.
There they were, shiny green vines scrambling up 8-foot poles and winding back down again, dripping with long wide pods all abulge with fat white beans. Lima beans he called them, and who was I to gainsay? They looked like any limas I’d seen, only fatter.
He explained that he got them many years earlier from a neighbor who acquired them in the Carolinas on a winter pass-through to Florida. So I took some and called them ‘Small’s Carolina Lima’ (he didn’t call them anything), not realizing until years later (happily too late to set Orlando straight on the matter) that they weren’t true limas at all, but runner beans; in fact, a white version of the scarlet runner bean people often grow to avoid their neighbors. By the time I came to fully appreciate their usefulness, the seed was dead and so was Orlando. (Why do we so seldom “get it” when it really matters?) I never found anyone who had that strain, although I’ve found many other white runner varieties that are perhaps just as good.
Runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) are native to Guatemala, yet they tolerate, nay, require cooler weather than would ever ripen “true limas” (P. lunatus, which hailed from northwest Argentina long before humans took over their destiny). The explanation for their temperature tolerance is that they live in the cool mountainous highlands of that region. No wonder they’re so popular in Britain, where “true” limas are even more of a non-starter.
I’m talking here about white runners in particular because they look and taste just like real limas (only plumper). Scarlet runner beans are perfectly edible, but the pink and purple seeds have a certain flavor that I find slightly off-putting. (I mean, the Brits love them; what more need I say?) White runner beans, on the other hand, are indistinguishable from “true” limas in flavor, except maybe by folks who garden in their Birkenstocks and send their kids to Montessori schools. I say they’re lima beans in all but the fatness. In fact, many white runner varieties have names like ‘Oregon Lima,’ ‘Whatcom Lima,’ ‘Giant Polish Lima.’ That alone should convince any right-thinking person that they are interchangeable, in cuisine if not in nomenclature. But whereas planting lima beans in my garden is about as promising as chasing rainbows, I can rely on a crop of white runner beans, just as surely as Orlando did.
Intercropped Support for Runner Beans
A few bush, or dwarf, varieties of runner bean exist. Yes, I know “dwarf runner beans” is like saying “jumbo shrimp” or “military intelligence” or “country music,” but those all do exist, if you look in the right places. Anyway, most are pole beans, and I prefer those for greater space efficiency. Only I don’t usually waste poles on runner beans, not when I’m also growing sunflowers and amaranth. I grow 6- to 8-foot-tall varieties of those crops, with stalks that are amply heavy to support vines. But you mustn’t sow them at the same time. For one thing, runner beans are not frost hardy, so don’t put them in the ground before Memorial Day, whereas sunflowers and amaranth can and should have been planted a good three weeks earlier. Moreover those support plants need a good head start, else the runner beans will be looking for something to glom onto, which isn’t there yet. I sow sunflowers in 3-foot by 3-foot hills (thinning to three plants per hill) and amaranth in 3-foot rows (thinning to 1 to 2 feet asunder), and when they’re several inches tall, I poke in the runner bean seeds, at least four per hill.
I grow all my dry pole beans this way, and while they don’t yield quite as heavily as on bare poles (they mind the shade a bit, though not too much), the net yield per unit area is far greater than when the two crops are grown separately.
Runner beans have a curious way of coming into the world, compared with other beans. While common beans (P. vulgaris) bend their “neck” up out of the soil first, then pull the opening seed leaves up behind them, runner beans come up head first, poking up the opening leaves as they emerge.
If you have problems with Mexican bean beetles in your other beans, you will have them at least as badly in your runner beans. Handpicking the bugs is extremely effective if the patch is small enough and if you’re there at the right time. (Who said “Ninety percent of success in life is showing up”?) Trust me, you’re going to want to plant far more runner beans than is practical to de-bug manually, so if the Mexican bean beetles get out of hand, you’ll want to use something.
Because the beans are growing on poles or stalks, you can’t easily protect them with a row cover; and because they attract lots of pollinators, you must be careful what you spray. (Runner beans don’t depend on those pollinators to set pods; they can self-pollinate.) Neem oil and insecticidal soap are effective if you cover the undersides of the leaves, where the bugs hang out mostly. Petunias and potatoes are recommended companion crops; I know the latter can be effective, though not usually enough. I believe an extract derived from potato foliage might be very helpful (as is an extract of rhubarb leaves against flea beetles). In my experience, many reputed pest repellant plants don’t pack enough punch just growing in the neighborhood; they need a more commanding presence, as a sprayed extract may give – in which case, add rosemary and cedar to the list, and perhaps an infusion of rape or turnip foliage. These latter ideas are just that; I’ve not tried them yet.
It helps if you can refrain from introducing Mexican bean beetles into your garden when you plant the crop, yet many gardeners do exactly that, especially with home-grown seed: Those teeny dimples on the seed coat indicate that adult beetles have laid eggs in the seeds, and the seeds now contain larvae. The beetles aren’t hard to avoid if you freeze the seed. A friend in Austria objects that Mexican bean beetles (and pea maggots) just LOVE to be frozen. Well, she means in a freezer, but I mean REALLY frozen, as in the Maine outdoors. January temperatures of -15 F are common in my woodshed, and storing beans there appears to annoy the larvae to the point of extirpation. Try it if you’re fortunate enough to live in Maine.
Scarlet Runners Less Tasty
Most U.S. gardeners plant the scarlet-flowering runner bean (the species name coccineus means “scarlet” in Old Italian) mainly for ornament and to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. However, I have seen lots of pollinators attracted to the white-flowered types. Anyway, the scarlet ones do work well as an edible landscape plant, especially if grown on ornamental sunflowers as a floral double-whammy. But as I said, I prefer the white ones for actual gnawing-on.
By the way, some folks, not me, like to nibble on raw, unripe runner bean seeds, so I must warn you about the lectin phytohemagglutinin. Lectins are a type of protein that binds with sugar. Many lectins exist, some essential for animals, some toxic. Phytohemagglutinin exists in many plants, especially legumes. The lectin in raw bean seeds can harm you unless beans are thoroughly heated – hence the expression, “Cook the hell out of ‘em.”
Now get this! One can supposedly get another food crop off runner beans. The roots can be perennial in milder climates than mine (which is most anywhere south of Baffin Island), and I’ve heard that they can be eaten (one of the names for white runners is “potato bean”). I’ve never heard that they’re actually scrumptious. Indeed, mine have never gotten all that big; for me the beans are where it’s at.
Keeping the vines stripped as the pods ripen is supposed to increase yield, which I do not doubt, but I assume that “ripe” means for use at the green shell stage. I leave them all to get completely dry and pull off all the pods at once. These I thresh in a galvanized trash can and winnow in a good breeze until they’re clean enough for winter storage, and for use.
In the Kitchen
Either in the green shell or dry stage, white runner beans are delicious served with a few slivers of ripe-red sweet pepper, a sprig of savory and a dash of Maine-grown sunflower oil. I hate to indulge in hyperbole, but after eating this dish, you may wonder why you were eating whatever you were eating before.
Or stew some runner beans with a few fistfuls of finely chopped kale and diced potatoes, all ready about the same time. I go all shaky just thinking about it.
Another great stew is made with white runners, sweet corn chopped off the cob, bell peppers, tomatoes, celery and cumin.
Runner beans make a superb baked bean, as well, but ease up on the molasses (or infinitely better, maple syrup) and add lots of coarsely cut onions.
For an attention-getting dip or spread, puree runner beans with tahini-cheese (tahini, miso and stock), paprika and pesto, and perhaps some blended sweet corn, but not too much. If you still don’t fancy white runner beans, you’re just not serious about food, so put this article down and go back to your Sudoku. Otherwise, start planning where you’re going to fit those into next year’s garden, because you’re going to want plenty.
About the author: Will Bonsall lives in Industry, Maine, where he directs Scatterseed Project, a seed saving enterprise. His extensive, bountiful and beautiful gardens are open for tours two days each summer. Dates will be listed in the June-August issue of The MOF&G.
Finding and Saving Seeds
Although fewer white than scarlet runner bean varieties are available for seed in this country, we have many from which to chose. Surely some are better adapted for New England than others, but I don’t yet have a very good handle on that (except for ‘Grammy Tilley,’ an old New Hampshire heirloom that I grow). Most will do well here, and I advise trying several, separating them by at least 100 m (328 ft.) for seed purity. And you should save your own seed, as varieties come and go on the market; when you find what suits your particular needs, take control of it, along with your own destiny – not to mention your purse; in Britain, exhibition varieties sell dear, with only 10 seeds per packet. I have no seed to share at present, but I suggest checking various sources, including Seed Savers Exchange, for these varieties: ‘Czar,’ ‘Desiree,’ ‘Emergo,’ ‘Grammy Tilley,’ ‘White Dutch.’